Interview with Darshana Jhaveri

By Doli Bambhania

Leading Manipuri artist and guru, Padmashri Darshana Jhaveri trained under Guru Bipin Singh.  She is one of the four internationally renowned Jhaveri Sisters, whose name has become synonymous with Manipuri Dance.  She is one of the founders of Manipuri Nartanalaya, which was established in 1972 in Manipur, Mumbai, and Kolkata. Her troupe represents some of the best Manipuri dancers, drummers, and musicians in the world.  In addition to teaching and performing, Darshana Jhaveri is also a leading scholar and author of several texts on Manipuri dance.  She has toured the world for the last 50 years, performing, teaching, and spreading awareness around Manipuri dance.

Darshana Jhaveri graciously took the time to talk about her introduction to Manipuri dance, her Guruji, and a variety of topics that are important to students and audiences of classical Indian performing arts.

Going back to when you and your sisters first started learning dance, there was a stigma against Manipuri at the time.  Can you take us back and describe your journey in those early days?  How about being a Gujarati and learning Manipuri?

We were four sisters dancing – I am the youngest.  My two eldest sisters, Nayana and Ranjana, started dancing during the 1940s, learning Manipuri from Guru Bipin Singh when he came to Bombay in 1943.  Suverna and I started in 1947.  It was the ‘Age of Revival’.  During that decade, Mahatma Gandhi’s independence movement inspired the young generations to revive our own culture.  At the same time, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore brought all the art forms to the mainstream; otherwise, in the medieval age, it was not considered proper for society girls and boys to learn dance.  Because of him, the whole atmosphere was charged with so much enthusiasm in young generations.  Gujarati girls and boys used to go to Shantiniketan to learn Manipuri and Kathakali.

In Bombay, dance dramas, such as Chaula Devi, Amrapali, Meerabai, and Narsaiyo, were produced on an amateur level.   My sisters took part in such dance dramas.  The Manipuri part was directed by our Guruji, Guru Bipin Singh; that’s how we came in contact with our Guruji.  We had opportunities to learn other styles in the beginning, such as, Kathak, Kathakali, or Kandyan dance, but Manipuri was the right dance style for our aptitude, our nature and our body.  Manipuri requires natural grace that our Guruji felt we four sisters had.  We also thought that he was the right guru for us, as he had a scholarly attitude and knowledge, and his way of teaching was very nice.  Also, the Manipuri style is so graceful, lyrical and devotional; this attracted us and impressed us.  We were lucky to have parents who encouraged us and gave us all opportunities.  Gradually, we felt that we had to go deep in this style, and devote and dedicate our lives to the art form.   There was no difficulty in being a Gujarati and learning Manipuri.  I have seen, in fact, that the Manipuri style is more suitable to Bengalis and Gujaratis.  There’s a certain element of devotion, humility and grace in the Gujaratis, as well as in the Bengalis.

You are considered a foremost living exponent of Manipuri dance.  Can you describe your activities towards preserving, promoting, and educating others about Manipuri?

It’s important to tell our history.  Our work is pioneering work.  We were inspired by what Rukmini Devi did in Bharatanatyam.  During that time, in other dance styles also, similar work was done.  We did that in Manipuri.  Our main contribution has been to bring the traditional and classical dances of Manipur from the temples to the theaters, without polluting their original form and spirit.   In Manipur, dancing is part of the religious and spiritual life.

The two main highly developed forms of Manipuri that are practiced are Rasleela, which are dance dramas, and Sankirtan, a form invoking Radha and Krishna, through Pung Cholom (dance with drums) and Kartal Cholom (dance with cymbals).   Before, Rasleelas and Sankirtan were performed in the temples only.  Even now, they are regularly performed in the temples.  For the stage and the present audience, we had to make it more sophisticated.  In the temples, the dances go on for 8 to 10 hours and would be performed in Ras Mandal (a circular form, with the audience sitting on three sides).  That length of time and that audience arrangement are not possible for the modern proscenium stage.  We worked to comprise all the classical elements in two hours for the modern stage.   Now, Rasleela and Sankirtan are highly developed forms.

Gurus, during the last two to three hundred years, took inspiration from the Vaishnavite shastras and made the dancing more rich and classical.  During the last 50 years, these shastras have no longer been followed and much of the information was retained only through oral tradition among innumerable gurus.  Our Guruji was knowledgeable and was interested in the shastras, so we collected and studied all the Vaishnavite shastras, as well as ancient texts on dance and music.  We also collected and recorded the oral tradition from innumerable gurus, who specialized in different aspects of Rasleela and Sankirtan.  We have about 150 tapes, all oral traditions – a very rare collection.  We correlated the oral tradition with the shastras and established the scientific tenets underlying the oral traditions.  Though all of the classical elements have been present in the Rasleelas, no one was conscious of them there (in Manipur).  We selected these classical elements, such as the talas, the tandava and lasya elements, and the prabandhas (musical compositions, such as, swaramala, swaravali and tarana), and developed each of these elements through new compositions, giving more intricacy of movements and rhythm patterns, for the stage.

In Manipur, dance is deeply devotional.  We are from Bombay! We have taken Manipuri as an art form! We (sisters) are all educated and look at dance from a different point of view, so our attitude differs.  We wanted to do the work to bring the dance form on the stage, similar to how Rukmini Devi brought out the aesthetic of Bharatanatyam and made it sophisticated.  We were, in fact, close to Rukmini Devi, and she used to appreciate our work and our presentation.  We have performed in Kalakshetra many times.  So, that was our aim – we were keen on developing the classicism of Manipur. In Manipur, besides classical forms, there are also folk, traditional and tribal forms of dance.  When other groups present Manipuri dance, they showcase all the dance forms of Manipur.  We, however, wanted to bring the classicism at its best, and we were guided to do that.

Our Guruji was a great guru; he had so much knowledge and was deeply rooted in tradition.  We also came in contact with so many other gurus, whose way of creating and presenting was different – they were not educated in that way.  Even our Guruji had only some basic schooling, but he had a great passion for knowledge.  He would buy and read any (relevant) book, regardless of the language it was published in.  We had a big library, and he used to remember which aspect was on which page of which book – it was amazing!  This gave us the knowledge of the outside world also.  Our work was a collaboration of Guru Bipin Singh with the Jhaveri Sisters.  Otherwise, neither us, nor Guruji, could have done this work single-handedly.  We were fortunate to have him and he was fortunate to have us.  It was a wonderful 50 years!  He passed away in 2000.

Working together all these years, we were able to present Manipuri on the same platform with other classical dance forms.  We have performed a lot in so many conferences.  Since 1958, I have been traveling and performing all over the world, all over India.  Our whole vision was to popularize the dance form through articles and through books.  We have published 17 books and have established three academies, in Bombay, Kolkata and Manipur.  I direct the Bombay academy, Guruji’s wife, Kalavati Devi, is the director in Kolkata, and Guruji’s senior disciple, Guneshwori Devi, is the director in Manipur.  Through these academies, we teach, [present] creative productions, and [conduct] research.  We have students everywhere, who are coming up, getting scholarships and teaching.  Many have now started their own schools.  So in this way, we have popularized Guruji’s gharana.   Youngsters, such as Guruji’s daughter, Bimbavati Devi, are coming up.  She is creating new productions, taking inspiration from all other forms and using different themes.

We consider ourselves classical and traditional dancers, so we have stuck to that tradition.  We’ve felt this way from the beginning; we don’t believe in modern themes or contemporary works.  In the 1950s, we did present dance dramas on other mythological themes, using different dance forms from Manipur such as Thang Ta and others.  We experimented with different themes, like Amrapali-Rajnartaki or Usha-Aniruddha stories.  We started this, but then realized that we have to go deep into tradition, and create within the tradition.  Young dancers nowadays want to explore modern themes – (laughing) they are not satisfied with the tradition!

Can you please speak about the influence of Vaishnavism in Manipuri?  How is the approach to Vaishnavism different from that of other parts of India, such as Bengal?  Why do women (rather than men) play the role of Krishna?

We have the Sringara Rasa, which is very important in Manipur.  The two primary types of Sringara Rasa involve love-in-separation or love-in-union.  Each of these two elements are divided in fours, then each of those into eight, making 64 divisions of Sringara Rasa.  Similarly, there are eight states of heroines in love; each is divided into eighths, making 64.  This is very important in Manipur because of Vaishnavism.

The Manipuris are followers of the Gaudiya Vaishnavism, which is the devotional cult of Hinduism, advocated by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.  The religion, literature and shastras [of Gaudiya Vaishnavism] came from Bengal, but were rooted in the fertile soil of Manipur and flowered into classical forms, such as, Rasleela and Sankirtan, which are not in Bengal.  These are beautiful, and so rich!  Sankirtan is performed in Manipur at each and every social occasion, right from the birth of a child to ultimate death (and all of the occasions in between).  So, dance and music in Manipur are not on the circumference of life, but in the center of life!

In this type of Vaishnavism, there is a focus on Prem Lakshana Bhakti and the divine love of Krishna and Radha.  In the Bhakti Rasa (devotion), there are 16 stages to realize one’s self, reaching the final union with Krishna.  The ultimate union, in which there is egolessness, is called Mahanubhava, or Ujwal Rasa, or Madhur Rasa.  This ultimate Anand (joy/ecstasy) is reached through Sadhana and understood through the love between Krishna and Radha.  This is the main point in Gaudiya Vaishnavism: Krishna is the supreme soul and all others, including Radha, gopis, and gopalas, yearn to be one with Him.  This requires egolessness; we have to go beyond our worldly bondages.  There is selflessness in Radha’s love; it’s a complete dedication and surrender, so much so that she becomes one with Him.  In this sect of Vaishnavism, in addition to Krishna’s divinity, there’s much more associated with Him, including beauty and art.   Lord Krishna is a romantic hero, unlike Shiva.  There is no Raudra Bhav, only Sringara Rasa.

In Manipur temples, traditionally, young children, 7 to 8 years in age, play the roles of Radha and Krishna.  On the stage, yes, women do mostly play the role of Krishna.  It’s not that men cannot perform the role – and, in fact, there are things like jumping in Krishna Tandava.  But, there is a certain amount of grace required in portraying Krishna with Sringara Rasa, for which women are more suitable.  However, that may change, as more boys and men are joining dance.

What does the word “guru” mean to you?  What similarities and differences do you see in your relationship with your Guruji and that between your disciples and to you?

In Manipur, there is a Gurukul system.  So the guru is like God, as described in the Guru Shloka.  The people in Manipur don’t necessarily know these shlokas; however, that feeling is certainly present.  There’s no money involved in the guru-shishya relationship there, unlike with teachers in cities.  The guru is seen with Bhakti Bhav and Seva Bhav (devotion and service).  A shishya does all of the guru’s work, such as housework and caring for him when he’s sick.  When we would go to Manipur, the girls would arrive at 5 a.m., and yes, they practice, but they also clean the guru’s home, cook his meals, wash his clothes, bring cooking ingredients, etc.  It’s a Prem Bhav (love), with no expectations.  The guru teaches when he feels inspired, with no fixed schedule.  It’s a very natural and pure relationship, I feel, with so much respect for the guru from the shishya, and so much love for the shishya from the guru.  But the guru can be very strict too – might hit also – because he wants the shishya to really learn and rise high, returning a victor when he/she goes out to perform.

When I used to go with Guruji to Manipur (every year for 2-4 months), I would teach the students there, and they would do everything for me.  There isn’t a system of servants there.  The feeling from the students there is very different – they don’t feel like they have to do something (for the guru), but do it out of love.  A Manipuri student would even wash my clothes, but a Bombay student wouldn’t.  I am impressed with how much Panditji’s (Chitresh Das’) students do for him.  There’s a certain feeling there, in spite of living in this day and age, and that too, in America!  What he has created is a great achievement on his part!

With regards to the students in Bombay, some of them do understand what ‘guru’ means, but not so much.  The problem is with this modern day and age.  We sisters did everything for our Guruji. We held on to every word that came out of our Guruji’s mouth.  I had a very deep relationship with him because I stayed with him a lot.  I remember staying up all night long fanning him so he could sleep peacefully.  It’s different with today’s boys and girls.  There are too many distractions – the same girls learns Indian dance, Western dance, swimming and plays sports, instead of just concentrating on one thing and going really deep.  That concept is no longer here (in India); perhaps it’s there (in the US).  When I visited the US in 2007, I noticed that Bharatanatyam teachers followed the tradition quite strictly, whereas, there seems to be so much fusion in Mumbai.  Here, there seems to be a desire for something “new” all the time, whereas there (in US), the students seem to work harder and the teachers seem to be stricter about sticking to tradition.

From the perspective of a classical dancer, what does “Indian culture” mean?  In this changing world, what are the values and beliefs that you think are important for students of classical dance to embody?

All of our classical dances have so much capacity for interpretation.  You can do justice by interpreting mythological themes because they have that higher value.  Forget about that in contemporary themes!  Mythological stories are so closely connected to all of the classical dances.  Dances were developed alongside religion in temples.  This is what has allowed classical dances to maintain their high standard, dignity, and purity.   The mythological stories have stood the test of time; they never get old.  There is a universal appeal behind and a deep message within the story of Radha and Krishna.  Many people here argue that we should bring contemporary themes, such as love between a boy and a girl, or drinking, etc, but they are so superficial!  When you take mythological themes, there are so many higher values within that.   These days, dance has separated from religion, and when this happens, an element of sensuality and materialistic attitude enters the dance.

In Manipur, the royalty used to patronize the dance, but dance still took place in the temples.  As a result, its dignity, sophistication, purity, humility, and devotion, were all maintained through the centuries.  Even though the king may be sitting there, the fact that the dance would be performed in a temple in front of a deity, would allow the dance to create a different feeling and mood.  It’s not the same when that dance is done on a stage; however, if there’s purity in the heart of the dancer, the theater becomes her temple.  But, regardless, the feeling is different in a temple – I always look forward to that.  In fact, I just recently performed in the Tirupati Balaji Temple in July.  The element of spirituality and the feeling in that experience is very different.   When you go deep into any dance form, with perfection and with riyaz, you do experience that feeling, that oneness with God.  You reach that Anand, no matter what else is going on in the rest of your life.  Dance has that capacity; it’s the highest form of art, because it engages the mind, body and the soul!  Compared to other art forms, dance is the closest to the soul.  We dancers should consider ourselves fortunate and thank God that He has given us this path.  We are lucky to have this medium to reach God.

These days, the youngsters don’t know even the meaning of the word Sanskrit.  There is so much in our shastras!  Think about it: the gurus dedicated their lives to creatively enrich our traditions; they spent so much time refining them, and then, they became classical.  There is so much strength in these traditions.  That’s what empowers the classical dancers to evoke that sentiment and achieve that aesthetic on stage.  Let me give you an example.  In 2007, after a performance, during an interview with an American professor, I explained that in Manipur, when you watch Rasleela or Sankirtan for ten hours in the temple courtyard, you get a level of involvement and Bhakti Bhav (devotion) that you don’t get on stage.  People become so overcome with devotional fervor that they get up from the audience, come into the arena and prostrate before the artist, crying ceaselessly as they experience ecstatic joy.  They appreciate the artistic excellence that has helped them experience this ecstatic and highly spiritual joy.  Tears flow from their eyes and they offer the artist anything they can, such as cloth or money, to show their appreciation.  The professor explained that she, in fact, felt this and had tears in her eyes when I was dancing on the stage!  Her heart must be pure and sensitive; that’s how she could experience that.  It is possible to achieve that eternal bliss from dance.  You cannot get that from Bollywood!

What would be your advice to young students who are trying to make a career in Indian classical dance?

They must have a strong foundation.  They should know shastras and know where dance comes from.  They can creatively present mythological stories to reach modern audiences.  They should not dilute or compromise the dance form, even if that means getting a smaller audience.  To get money or popularity, they should not stoop to lower levels by doing something like choosing a film song.  They must maintain their standard, their dignity.  It is difficult, from a practical point of view, to survive as a performing artist.  They may consider teaching and creating productions with their students.  But they must keep themselves intact, and not compromise their art by introducing Bollywood movement or music into their dance.  I strongly believe this.

How can audiences that are not familiar with Manipuri, better access the art form?  For example, many may easily enjoy Pung Cholom, but perhaps may have a harder time understanding Rasleela.

Westerners really enjoy the beauty of the form, without necessarily being familiar with Manipuri.  A dancer, however, must explain any religious story elements.  If a clear explanation is given, then the audience is able to understand, and therefore, enjoy the dance.  I have found that many Westerners have an aesthetic sensibility that is highly developed, and they are able to enjoy.   In Russia and Africa, when we do more Tandava dance, drumming, etc, they really like it and we get a big applause.  On the contrary, in places like Paris, London and New York, the audiences appreciate the Lasya elements of Manipuri.

What are your hopes and expectations from the Traditions Engaged festival?

I look forward to seeing different artists and different styles.  This festival is a very nice idea.  The fact that this festival, Traditions Engaged, is giving importance to ‘traditions’ is very important.  Preserving the traditions is the main responsibility of the present dancers, the present gurus and the present teachers.  The tradition, which is the result of the guru-shishya parampara, we have to preserve it and engage it, keeping its purity intact.  I am sure that those organizing the festival think about preserving the rich tradition of guru-shishya parampara that’s there in all Indian classical traditions.  Not only that, but it’s possible to do new things to enrich it.  We can move it forward.  Tradition doesn’t mean mere repetition.  We can have significant creative transformation in modern concept.  We may change it according to the realities of today’s world, but its purity of form and spirit should be maintained.

Darshana Jhaveri and her troupe will be performing on Friday, Oct. 1st at 7:00 PM.

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